Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Tales from Q School by John Feinstein - Book Review

John Feinstein’s Tales from Q School: Inside Golf’s Fifth Major is another golf book from his prolific keyboard. Author of twenty-three books, five of them focused on golf, Feinstein has been a pioneer in providing inside pictures of major events. Several of his books recount the experience of a team through an entire season. His golf books emphasize personal stories and inspirational inside looks at the effects this demanding game has upon those who seek to play it at the highest levels. His book Caddy for Life details the heart rending story of Bruce Edwards' courageous battle against Lew Gehrig’s disease. In Tales from Q School Feinstein takes on a particularly difficult task because of the scope of the event and the lack of reliable stars whose experience he can recount.

Q(ualifying) school is the PGA Tour’s series of three annual fall tournaments to determine which new golfers will be added to the group who are already exempt from qualifying for next year’s season on the tour. At a cost of $4500, around 1000 golfers from a wide range of golf backgrounds view over a couple of months and fourteen rounds of golf for 30 (now 25) of the precious tour cards making them exempt for the coming season. Some of the competitors are former tour winners, even winners of majors like the Masters Tournament, while many more are recent college graduates hoping to qualify for the PGA Tour or the Nationwide Tour and work their way into the big time. Every player has a story, and one of Feinstein’s great talents is the ability to capture these stories and humanize the men who live them.

Feinstein had to overcome several problems in seeking to make this a truly gripping story. First, the first and second stages of Q school are spread out across the country, from California to Florida. It’s impossible to cover fully the entire event. Second, with a few exceptions, most of the players are relative unknowns. Finally, finding an individual to focus on for all three stages is virtually impossible. Feinstein solves these problems in an interesting and thoughtful fashion. By emphasizing the incredible pressure of the event, the amount riding on each shot, and the contrast between life on the PGA Tour and that provided by the Nationwide Tour and the even smaller mini-tours, he develops the tension and importance of the event. Then he can use individual stories (his Tales) to illustrate the pressure, the stakes, the heartache, the triumph. As the tournaments progress, some players move up and into greater prominence. Others fail to meet their goals and tell of the sense of loss in having to spend another year chasing their dream or deciding to go home and give up their goal of life on the PGA Tour.

A continuing theme in Tales from Q School is the quality of player forced to qualify. Only 150 players are exempt from qualifying for all PGA Tour events. Everyone else must be invited to an event or play in a subsidiary tour like the Nationwide. Golfers on the PGA tour are simply the best there are…anywhere. Each year they must compete against everyone else to stay in the top 150 on the money list or go through the grueling experience of Q school once again. A very few players like Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, and Justin Leonard have jumped directly from college to the Tour by winning a PGA Tour event while still in college. Nearly everyone else has had to attend Q school at least once. Many others have had to return one or more times during their careers.

In the end, Feinstein’s book is fascinating because it provides intriguing life stories of the individuals who have come to pursue a career as professional golfers. Often pictured as one dimensional automatons, the golfers in this book immerge as complex, often driven, sometimes truly thoughtful, and almost always deeply committed people. Golfers will be able to connect to these athletes because they know precisely how difficult golf can be and what hard work it takes to begin to master the sport. Non golfers will gain empathy and insight into a sport they may have stereotyped as a rich man’s pastime filled with often spoiled and self-indulgent men who refuse to grow up. In either case, Tales from Q School makes interesting reading. The book is available on-line, from your local independent book store or chain outlet.